John Fahey (1939-2001) was one of the most original composer/guitarists of the late 20th century and yet he traveled under the radar of anyone but the most intrepid fans of the avant garde. A guitar prodigy out of Takoma Park, Maryland, he went on to fuse old acoustic blues with modern classical soundscapes, producing fascinating montages that attracted the ear of a younger fan base by the time of his death (thanks, partly, to latter day fans like Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon and Byron Coley.) Cree McCree and her husband, the avant-garde guitarist Donald Miller, hosted Fahey at their apartment in the late 1990s and lived to tell the tale.
By Cree McCree & Donald Miller
PRELUDE (Stardate: December 1996)
In 1959, when “indie” was about three decades shy of entering the pop lexicon, a young guitar player named John Fahey from Takoma Park, Maryland, released 100 copies of his debut vinyl album on his own Takoma label. Blind Joe Death, which the enterprising college kid hustled (with scant success) to customers at his moonlighting job as an Esso station attendant, announced a radical intention: to fuse the jarring dissonance of modern classical composers like Bela Bartók with old blues 78s. Fahey had cut his teeth on the classics, but had started collecting the 78s after Blind Willie Johnson’s “Praise God I’m Satisfied” deflected him from the hillbilly music he’d initially been tracking.
One of the most original composer/guitarists of the late 20th century was about to hit the streets, and more than a few back roads.
Some 25 years later, in the mid-’80s, when Fahey was battling the chronic fatigue of Epstein-Barr virus, Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo stumbled upon two matching copies of Fahey’s 1967 album Requia in a 99-cent bin while on tour with Sonic Youth. Fahey then lived in near obscurity after having dragged his eccentricities (and a variety of vintage instruments) halfway around the world and into guitar legend.
“We were in a period of consciously trying to expand our musical references,” recalls Moore, who knew only Fahey’s reputation prior to the bargain-bin score. “Lee called me a couple days later and said, ‘Have you listened to the John Fahey!!??’”
What they’d unearthed was a revelation: the “Requia for Molly” suite, which dominated the album’s second side, juxtaposes Fahey’s minimally laconic and maximally manic acoustic guitar stylings against a tape collage combining Charles Ives, Nazi rallies, and zoo and barnyard animals at various speeds. The whole reflects the nervous disintegration of a female friend –– and, by extension, California of the late ‘60s and all of Western Civilization. The climax pits a solo quote of “California Dreamin’” against oinking pigs and performing seals; this would be Berkeley in 1967, where Fahey then lived.
Fast forward to 1996. Byron Coley, editor of Forced Exposure and friend of Thurston Moore’s, tracked Fahey down in a Salem, Oregon, welfare motel and recounted “The Persecutions and Resurrections of Blind Joe Death” in a 1994 article for Spin. That eventually led to City of Refuge (Tim/Kerr 1997), Fahey’s first new recording in years, and an East Coast mini-tour with Moore in December of 1996.
“I had no idea what to expect,” says Moore. Neither did Fahey. When he showed up for soundcheck in Boston with a cheap Epiphone he’d picked up en route at one of numerous Salvation Army stops he made during a $200 cab ride from Providence, RI, Fahey initially mistook Moore for a guitar tech. After that got sorted out, Fahey invited him up to his hotel room.
“He answered the door stark naked,” Moore recalls, laughing. “And said, ‘You want to come in and listen to some Stravinsky?’”
Later, during the road trip, stretched out on Moore’s backseat with his trusty boombox, Fahey made tape collages of his own music, birdcalls, Balinese dance tracks, and whatever else struck his immediate fancy.
“He was in a zone between wakingness and sleep, emitting some kind of sound that wasn’t really a snore, more of a roaring hum,” recounts Moore. “And the whirr of the tape machine between the stuff he was recording became part of the collage. I still have a bunch of the tapes he made scattered on the floor of my car.”
The final date of this tour was Pearl Harbor Day at New York’s CBGB, where the line for the sold-out show went around the block in New York rain. Throughout the trip, Moore had peppered the bill with a number of “out” guitar players, all reverential fans of Fahey.
Tonight, while Fahey co-opted the CB’s ladies room to restring, practice and deal with a dreaded photo shoot, a sine qua non of America’s young guitar avant garde –– Davey Williams, Jim O’Rourke, Michael J. Schumacher and Donald Miller –– nervously cavorted in another of CB’s glamorous back rooms where Williams summed up the mood of the assembled acolytes: “It’s always cool to share a bill with a genius.”
Then Thurston popped in with an announcement that silenced all further conversation: “Fahey just crawled out on stage.”
You could hear pins drop at CBGB. Anyone daring to discuss their roommate problems was curtly sshh’ed with looks recalling those of an old South lynch mob.
Fahey had mentioned beforehand that he needed to start his shows with aggression to accommodate his medically defined levels of energy. (He beat Epstein-Barr but was still contending daily with diabetes and Parkinson’s). And he opened with a vengeance.
With his steel laptop seriously detuned (by an octave, two-fifths and whatevers per string) and a 250w floodlamp bulb for a slide, Fahey blithely set his sizable sneakers in the door of the post-Derek Bailey avant garde with an “are you kidding, I’ve been doin’ this shit for years” glee.
He labored with well-calloused virtuosity on that shitwad hardstring Epiphone through “City of Refuge,” the new CD’s centerpiece and the only composed track on an otherwise improvised album. No quotes from Blind Willie, only from Skip James, whom Fahey “rediscovered” and once carted around. They snarled at each other at the time with the combined hatred of the obscured, but both won, as they did once again for the ghosts tonight.
“He answered the door stark naked,” Moore recalls, laughing. “And said, ‘You want to come in and listen to some Stravinsky?’”
Fahey encored out the CBGB set with “Oh Holy Night.” Kids who had no idea it first appeared on his best-selling album ever, 1968’s The New Possibility: John Fahey’s Guitar Soli Christmas Album, thanked him afterwards for playing a song they loved long before they were born. “A hymn, as always, to the end.”
“I couldn’t have gotten away with this even ten years ago,” Fahey observed after the show. “Nowadays, kids are a lot more intelligent, rebellious, and interested in experimental music. They stand out there and listen. Very carefully. And it’s a real release for me. Because this is the kind of stuff I’ve wanted to play for years but was afraid to.”
PRELUDE PREQUEL (Stardate: October, 2019. Entry by Donald Miller)
Flashback to John Fahey’s 1996 overnight stay at Donald & Cree’s NYC apartment on E. 38th St. before and after his CBGB Pearl Harbor Day show.
Prior to Fahey’s arrival, a great deal of data came pouring in. Drawing on Thurston’s fresh-from-the-road-with-Fahey tour experience, Kim Gordon gave Cree the dietary gross-out preamble: As a diabetic, Fahey was dedicated to the mass consumption of artificial sweeteners. Diet Coke on demand, to be augmented by ultra dumpage of Sweet’ N’ Lows into every delivery system. Ice coffee, same, but worse. We got, and pre-bought, the drill.
The previous night in Manhattan, Fahey had been booked into a West Village (pre Air-) BnB, but for one night only. Then he was unceremoniously evicted, unwashed and somewhat eternally dazed, before noon this momentous Saturday. After some concerned phone interaction with the “Get JF From Point A to B” HQs, I managed to get him to our midtown address. I assume someone from the BnB went “above & beyond” to funnel Fahey and his musical flotsam-cum-ballast into a paid vehicle.
I should hereby do full disclosure: I met (and befriended many) of my music and art heroes in my late teens and early 20s (Evan Parker, Peter Brœtzmann, Derek Bailey, Steve Lacy, La Monte Young, Henry Flynt, Rashied Ali, Jack Smith, Harry Smith, etc.). But though Fahey had left our identical homeground in DC/Maryland a decade-plus before I did, this was our first encounter. I was actually nervous, and it showed.
And then he showed.
When Fahey buzzed our apartment on the third floor, I ran down to assist him. He had made it up to our first-floor landing, where he was slumped against the wall in his sweaty, unchangeable tee, with his objets d’art collected in an elegant pile next to him. And I realized immediately that the collected objets –– his “clothes” army surplus sack, two (2!) boomboxes for his endless Fahey-isms with Tibetan Malagasy gamelan collaged cassettes, a cheap Epiphone 6-string in a case, and an uncased beautiful old 8-string lapsized laptop –– were now MY duty. We were all playing that night.
Once he had assumed his settled-in position in our bedroom, which he’d been given for reasons of girth, and set his booms up with electrical outlets, I suggested a visit to The Academy, an unusually wonderful used book and record shop not far downtown.
Fahey was eager to do this in a serious old addict way, as obsessed as ever with searching searching searching for used recordings of old music. But as we prepared to descend and grab a cab, I dithered to leave, as I am wont. Fahey, having none of it, bellowed “MOVE!” at a volume that reverberated in the stairwell like a supersonic boom. (It remains one of Cree’s favorite admonitions, which she invokes to this day whenever I dither.) And by the time we arrived at Academy, he was chomping at the bit.
Driven by a delusion planted by a wealthy fan pretending to be a broker for a fictional market in Japan so he could keep Fahey solvent by giving him a mission, he was hot on the trail of important classical LPs as a hunter/gatherer/spy. Which Academy has in abundance. And I made the mistake of telling my amigos there that John Fahey, big gig later that night, supergenius, was in da house, blowing his cover as what HE thought was a secret agent man for Japan. As we exited to grab dinner before the onerous duty of getting him (and me, separate cab) to CBs, he snarked at me: “Don’t ever let me ask you to do a crime!”
Then Thurston popped in with an announcement that silenced all further conversation: “Fahey just crawled out on stage.”
After Fahey’s performance at CB’s, where I was a performing seal closing the night, Cree took charge of transporting the star of the show in and out of a cab with all his gear and helping him schlep it up the two flights to our apartment. Later, after lugging my own gear up said flight, we curled up with the cats on the foldout couch on the living room floor and drifted off to sleep on waves of ambient sound. Behind the closed door of our bedroom, Fahey was still intoning into one of the two boomboxes, using a stash of blank cassettes I had on hand and threw to him. Judging from what he left behind, he was likely fiddling with them all night.
Next morning, while I committed to bloody marys, Kim phoned Cree and made her commit to the Fahey airport drill:
“Make sure you take him to the fucking gate for his flight home or he will take the cab you call to Connecticut to look for used records!”
Cree did as instructed and got him to the gate at JFK, where Fahey went on loudly about terrorism/ists in the security line (pre 9/11, but still).
And That Was The Weekend That Was, much of which was captured in three hours worth of taped conversations with our house guest.
CONVERSATIONS WITH JOHN FAHEY: 10 DISTILLATIONS
- NOTES ON THE BOOMBOX SOUND OF THE BI-MILLENNIUM
CM: What I love about the opening track [on City of Refuge] is it’s really an invocation. This is not like any John Fahey record you’ve ever heard before.
John Fahey: Right. “Fanfare.” This is an entirely new guitar sound, as far as I know. An acoustic guitar, miked and distorted in a cheap little mixer, recorded in my motel room. The background noise Thurston likes so much is a Champion juicer. And the clanking sound comes from holding a bar against that metal fret. Brang, brang, brang.
DM: What about the tape collages you play the guitar against? The obvious precedent would seem to be the “Requia for Molly.”
John Fahey: That took a big studio, with all kinds of speakers. Now I can do it in my own room, with my DAT and four or five boomboxes. And some kids I hired to turn them on and off. Little JD’s 8,10, 11 years old, who’ve been kicked out of school and don’t have any money and come around asking for work. Sometimes they’re hard to control, but you get a great sound. I haven’t heard anyone complain about the fidelity of six boom boxes and a guitar.
There’s no mixing. In fact, I would consider it kind of unethical to use a mixer. I just want blips. Or a long drone for background things that I play over my hi-fi or over the boomboxes. And I record the guitar over the DAT.
So that’s all new. I started doing it because I was lonely and didn’t have anything to do.
DM: That’s always a good inspiration.
John Fahey: Yeah, for a lot. But for me, the boombox has become a musical instrument. I sleep with one. I bet in my room I could make a better sounding record utilizing noise, melody, distortion, echo and on and on than anyone has ever made. Including Sonic Youth, including everybody I’ve heard, better than Bang on a Can, better than Einsturzende Neubauten. Who I like very much. And I could do it for less than $300. Right in my own little room.
That’s why I’m so excited about this record. I got a new sound out of the guitar. And it’s violent and questioning and forward looking.
DM: You’re gonna scare the shit out of some people.
John Fahey: Well, “Fanfare” is also about the bi-millenium. I’m sort of announcing it. First, It’s incredible that the human race hasn’t blown itself up. Second, the world is quite different from the way we looked at it even 30 years ago. Fractured…To me, the bi-millennium is a big mystery. What’s it gonna be? I’m cautiously optimistic. That last one was horrible. Here it comes: Bang de bang bang! [laughs]
- NOTES ON THE PROVENANCE OF JOHN FAHEY’S GUITAR
CM: The eight string is electric? Where did you find it?
John Fahey: Guy brought it by the studio in Rhode Island. He paid 40 for it and I paid him 50. He wanted to sell it to someone who would use it. It’s quite a rare and valuable instrument. It sounds even more monstrous and horrible and crazy and frightening and ghostly than it looks. It’s like guitar Auschwitz. And I turn the echo up to at least 10.
CM: Do you work much with effects boxes?
John Fahey: No, I don’t really have to. I try to get most of the effects or unusual sounds out of the instrument. Like putting the steel on the steel guitar and playing it on the wrong side. You’ll see while I’m playing. And I’m not doing that to show off. You’ll hear very strange sounds. Every once in a while an angelic sound comes out. I don’t know how, but it does.
- NOTES ON SKIP JAMES, MONTGOMERY COUNTY & THE BERKELEY INVASION
John Fahey: The third part of “City of Refuge” is a circumlocution of a Skip James blues song, played over and over again. I don’t think too many people remember or care that I was the one who rediscovered Skip James.
DM: Everybody here cares. Our cats care.
John Fahey: He was a jerk and I didn’t like him and he didn’t like me. But I spent a lot of time taking him around, getting him Social Security, that kind of thing. And he’d get into those long things that just went over and over and over for like an hour. He’d go into some trance or something. He played a lot of stuff that he didn’t record. So I know a lot of licks.
DM: Even the way you invoke Skip James isn’t the typical tribute to the bluesman whatsoever. It’s the distinctive Fahey run-through, you can recognize what it is. You actually know your music very well, just like Bartók did with his folk songs.
John Fahey: Bartók. I love Bartók.
DM: You’re very similar figures, really.
John Fahey: Well, he could read music.
DM: Actually, John, I stopped taking formal training after I began listening to you when I was 17. I’d heard Requia several times because it was part of the Montgomery County Library system.
John Fahey: How I hate that county! [laughs uproariously]
DM: I left it too, I live here now. When I was 17, I was still taking classical guitar lessons and had already been listening to Xenakis and Schoenberg and Bartók. Then I listened to Requia, and listened to it again and it sort of shattered my life. And the oldtimers I used to buy guitar strings from in downtown DC were like, ‘hey, you know John Fahey?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘You as good as him?’ ‘Uh, no’. ‘You ain’t worth spit if you come out of this town and you ain’t as good as Fahey.’
I haven’t heard anyone complain about the fidelity of six boom boxes and a guitar.
John Fahey: Oh yeah? [laughs] That happened a long time ago. The DC scene was so awful. Especially the folk music scene. That’s why a lot of us left there. There were about 40 of us who left there specifically to invade Berkeley, California, and take over the folk music scene. And we did. We vanquished them very quickly and I’m glad we did.
- NOTES ON MODES & FANBOY DEFERENCE
CM: Do you ever feel like you’ve stumbled on an undiscovered mode?
John Fahey: No. Most of the modes I learned are major and minor. I learned from Vaughn Williams symphonies. He’ll play stacked minor chords up the neck at certain intervals. I’d forgotten it was Vaugh Williams. British composer. I got Pastoral Symphony the other day. Gee, I thought I wrote that [laughs]. …I do weird things with modes. Like use them incorrectly on purpose.
DM: Yeah, I’ve noticed
John Fahey: Sometimes. Not all the time? What are you laughing at? Where do I do that? C’mon Mr. Brain.
DM: I’m not gonna perjure myself.
John Fahey: You’re probably right. I’m just curious what you noticed.
DM: I’ve been doing a paltry imitation of you since I was a kid, as a regular practice idiom.
John Fahey: Boy, you sure like to put yourself down. You don’t need to.
DM: I’m very good at what I do.
John Fahey: I bet you are.
DM: I’m just giving that idiotic sense of deference. How often do you get that?
John Fahey: All the time…I appreciate the polite deference at first but you can drop it.
- NOTES ON CHORDS & INSTRUCTIONAL VIDEOS
DM: I’ve been going over your chords for a long time, and my very favorites … the only thing I can refer to here is the stupid instructional videos Stefan Grossman got you to do. Oh yeah, this is one of those chords. I don’t know what it is. And those are the chords I’ve been working entire pieces around. I stopped formal lessons after I began listening to you seriously. I forgot how to read.
John Fahey: Good.
DM: I can’t sight read for shit.
John Fahey: You could probably learn again in five minutes.
DM: I just sort of play intuitively and I usually do all right because: I’m terribly good.
John Fahey: I believe you. There’s a couple places on the tape where I’ll say ‘what is this, Stefan, a major 7th’? And he said ‘yeah’. Oh OK. It’s a major 7th. I’m not sure that it was, to tell you the truth.
DM: You’re just being polite?
John Fahey: No, trying to get it over with.
DM: Yeah, it looked like it was an ordeal.
John Fahey: Yeah, I thought it would be. I haven’t seen any of them.
- NOTES ON THE KIDS & OLD FARTS IN FAHEY’S AUDIENCE
CM: What’s this tour been like, the shows with Thurston? Are the audiences mostly kids?
John Fahey: Yeah. And they seem to love it. And that’s who I’m trying to appeal to.
CM: Plus they’re not carrying the baggage of the old farts who remember John Fahey from 30 years ago.
John Fahey: Oh, they come. They come. But when they ask me to play “Sunflower River Blues,” I say no. I don’t play that shit anymore. If you want to live in the past, go ahead. But don’t try to drag me with you. At which point, several people usually get up and leave. And I love it. Cause I don’t like to be forced back into that.
- NOTES ON THE NAZI ENCLAVE OF LAKE WOBEGON
John Fahey: “On the Death and Disembowelment of the New Age” is a good attack on that horrible period. My next objective is the Lake Wobegon show.
CM: You’re going after Garrison Keillor?
John Fahey: Yeah, man, I’ve already started it.
CM: Good old folksy Garrison?
John Fahey: He’s a Nazi, man. That program is racist and a lie. Cause there’s no Jews on his show. No Chinese. No Catholics, even. And I’ve been in those little towns and those little towns have Jews. I mean, what’s he trying to pull? Underneath it all, it’s a Nazi show. I’m trying to think of a piece of classical music I’d like to evoke for Lake Wobegon.
DM: How about Bartók’s solo sonata for violin? That’s pretty shrieky.
John Fahey: I know that piece. Not bad. But it’s too emotional. I want something dry, suggesting death and strangeness. The music’s always been terrible on Lake Wobegon. Eventually, Leo Kottke and Chet Atkins ended up on there. Too cute. They’re part of the schtick. They’re both WASPs. It’s a show about WASPs. Nobody exists except WASPs.
But for me, the boombox has become a musical instrument. I sleep with one. I bet in my room I could make a better sounding record utilizing noise, melody, distortion, echo and on and on than anyone has ever made. Including Sonic Youth.
CM: I never realized Lake Wobegon had such a hidden agenda. I just thought Keillor was annoying because he’s terminally folksy.
John Fahey: He sure is. It’s like that book Nazi Art that shows how the Nazis took over all the cultural, artistic and architectural aesthetics.
CM: And there’s a direct link between Nazi art and Lake Wobegon?
DM: It is terminally kitschy.
CM: So that’s where kitsch came from, Nazi art? Actually, kitsch is a Yiddish term.
John Fahey: Yeah, it’s a lot older. Stuff that was always terminally folksy is kitsch.
- NOTES ON CANNIBALISM IN THE CITY OF REFUGE
John Fahey: Here’s the story of “City of Refuge.” When I was 13 or 14, I found Blind Willie Johnson’s record “I’m Gonna Run to the City of Refuge,” and the title was in my head when my mother and father were traveling north on vacation along the ocean. We were hungry and running out of gas when we saw this city we hoped would be a city of refuge. But when we got to this city, there were no human beings. Just a factory with a big conveyor belt that takes stuff out to the ocean and drops it in.
Before we took that trip, I had a dream. So before we got there, the factory started sending me messages to warn me that when we got to that city, my parents were gonna chop me up and eat me. So when we actually got to the City of Refuge, I had become the factory. The factory and I were one. And instead of them chopping me up and putting me on the conveyor belt, I chopped them up. And consumed them.
- NOTES ON HOAXES
John Fahey: I actually had a whole album ghostwritten by a friend of mine. And handed it into Shanachie, but they never issued it. I don’t know why.
CM: Actually ghosted? You don’t play on it at all?
John Fahey: Yeah, it’s this guitarist Charlie Schmidt. I love hoaxes. But it didn’t get issued. After two or three years, I would have told people about it. It probably would have been valuable. He can play me note for note. The only things he does different from me, when he accelerates, he accelerates faster. Always. I mean, I listen to it sometimes and forget that it’s not me.
- NOTES ON THE BIBLE OF STYLE
CM: How long have you had that particular pair of Blind Joe Death shades?
John Fahey: I bought ‘em in a thrift store about a year ago.
CM: Really? They look like they’ve seen some wear.
John Fahey: They have. I sat on ‘em a couple of time. They’re prescription.
CM: You’re wearing random thrift store prescription shades?
John Fahey: They’re not random. There’s boxes of ‘em. You just go through ‘em until you find one that works. I’ve had plenty. Glasses cost a fortune these days.
CM: They’re very stylish. You’d pay $250 at an L.A. designer optician. Easy.
John Fahey: Oh yeah? They’re pretty intimidating. That’s why I bought them. If I take them off, the world will explode.
- CODA (Stardate: October 2019. Entry by Donald Miller)
The aftermath of John Fahey’s NYC visit until his death in 2001:
The year of the true start of the pseudo-bi-millennium
Shortly after the CBGB show and the release of City of Refuge, Fahey began being booked and recorded by a number of decently-heeled indie labels. He also streamlined his touring by requiring venues to rent a backline for him with a Fender Strat and Twin Reverb –– and once at Tramps, back in NYC, a battery-dying pedal that sounded like crackling 78s.
The reaction to Fahey 2.0 amongst the faithful was hardly Dylan-goes-electric, and he enjoyed an artistic and financial renaissance until his health once again became a terminal albatross.
Before that tragedy, we personally enjoyed the comedy of an out-of-the-blue phone call to Cree, which I grokked quickly was his idea of an “obscene phone call”: he formally requested her assistance to ghostwrite sexual adventures into his anthology of his best writing, How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life (And he definitely did not want to speak with me; when Cree insisted, the withering “Oh. Hello, DONALD” was semi-precious.)
When they ask me to play “Sunflower River Blues,” I say no. I don’t play that shit anymore. If you want to live in the past, go ahead. But don’t try to drag me with you.
The albatross put on more weight. He post-mortem morphed into one with his doppelcritter Blind Joe Death on a not-leap-year day two months into the actual Gregorian bi-millenium, after being an obese and extremely ill man undergoing very serious surgeries. He was six days shy of his 63rd birthday.
His legacy? Between Fahey and Andres Segovia, the solo guitar, not just a guitar solo, is an official idiom in musica. The gorgeous grotesque of his playing haunts anyone who hears and gets it ad hoc diem, ad infinitum, ad astra.
[This first section of this piece (Prelude) was resurrected from an article that appeared in RayGun magazine (March 1997), which butchered the original text with a fractured, unreadable design.]